“I’m going to make a feminist man out of him!” Leymah Gbowee is gushing about her youngest son to a crowd of professors, filmmakers, and socialites inside the intimate ballroom of Manhattan’s Hotel Plaza Athenee. The crowd, a soup of black, beige, and cream fabric, has been silenced by clinking glasses and is now hanging on Leymah’s every word. In a vermillion fishtail gown and a bright green headdress almost a foot high, she commands the room—Queen for the day. “When I left home all that time,” she says, “my kids just told their friends, ‘My mom is a peace activist,’ and that was that. But then we did a private screening of the film in Ghana, and my kids came, and afterwards they told me, ‘If we knew you did such dangerous work, we would have told you to stop!’”
The film she speaks of is the new documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, and Leymah is the star, though it is an understatement to couch it in those terms. Back in 2003, Leymah did not wear brilliant peacock garments, but only stark white, a part of her uniform as a fighter for peace in civil war-ravaged Liberia. By that time, the warlord-backed rebels (LURD) had launched a full-scale attack against Monrovia and Liberia’s villages, raping and pillaging along the way.
When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Africa’s first female prime minister, was elected in Liberia’s first democratic vote in 2005, Lehmah says, “that was just the icing.”
Leymah had a vision of peace, and one day, she decided to gather friends (both Muslim and Christian) and sit in a field near the central Monrovia fish market, clad in white, to demand an end to the fighting. The few turned to hundreds and into a real organization—Women in Peacebuilding Program, or WIPP. The sit-in turned into meetings with the president and leaders of LURD, leading to the 2003 peace talks in Ghana. During the peace talks, when the two sides hadn’t come to a decision after months, Leymah and her troops blocked the building exits in Accra until accords had been made. It was nonviolent resistance, and completely feminine in its nature (done by word of mouth and through clothing and coded signals rather than loud acts), but Leymah and her army did more to bring peace to Liberia than almost any other group. When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female prime minister in Africa, was elected in Liberia’s first democratic vote in 2005, Leymah says, “That was just the icing.”
As is the case with many women’s movements, the story of WIPP could have been lost forever. By the time Abby Disney (yes, Roy’s daughter) arrived in Liberia in 2006, she heard only whispers of Leymah and the women in white, and there was no known footage of their fish market protests. But Abby, who had until then decided to stay away from the family filmmaking legacy, decided she had to document WIPP’s actions, if for no other reason than to show women in other parts of the world that they can affect change. Along with director Gini Reticker, Abby and Leymah made the film, and this year, it won raves at the Tribeca Film Festival and has won celebrity adoration from Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Fonda, Eve Ensler, and Gloria Steinem, who hosted Leymah’s most recent dinner appearance.
“In December,” Leymah said to the crowd, “we will host the first ever Women’s Policy Forum in Africa—women from the Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe, everywhere will be invited. They will see … once the willpower is generated, the external strength just comes.”
The Daily Beast spoke with producer Abby Disney about Leymah and the bold women of WIPP, and how Pray the Devil Back to Hell is already inspiring women in other third-world countries. Pray the Devil opened in New York on Friday, and will open nationwide according to demand in the coming weeks—we suggest you demand it.
How did you discover the story of Leymah and WIPP?
Making a film was honestly the furthest thing from my mind at that point. I was in Liberia, on a delegation of American women excited about President Sirleaf’s election. We were there to see if there was anything we could do to support her presidency. The story was just in the air, but only in pieces. Women referred to sitting on that field for 2.5 years, and I could tell that something really dramatic had happened in Ghana at the peace talks. What occurred to me—I know this from my work and my life—is that when something dramatic happens with these types of women, often it isn’t recorded; it is erased. I was watching the historical process of erasure right there in Monrovia. And I thought, in this one case, it would be possible to pull it back from the edge.
How did you find Leymah?
Actually, when I got home, I still had only snippets. Ginny and I were old friends, so we got together on the project and started to do detective work, and there was NOTHING—on film, on tape, in print. Then, like a miracle, we found Leymah—my friends at Harvard called and said she had heard this woman speak at the UN. I didn’t understand who she was. But we went to a hotel she was staying in and sat down and talked to her and it was better than we thought. On top of leading this movement, she was charismatic and funny and the camera loved her. We realized we had this very compelling central figure. She really could be our film’s defining consciousness.
Was it hard to get the archival footage?
So difficult. For months we had nothing. We did find a British reporter who had embedded himself with the rebels. One of the interesting things was how easy the combat footage was to come by—you do a search for it, and the next thing you know is you are swimming in the most disturbing images of blood and gore. What was hard to find were the women working for peace, because no one knew they were there—we had reporters say to us, “We knew they were there, but why shoot them?” They were so pathetic. We were going to give up, and then we found this man—he was hired in 1979 to be the presidential videographer, and he was there for decades, through assassinations and coups and all of it. When he was downsized in 2006, he went home with all his masters. He gave us everything. The only reason there is footage of the womens’ meeting with President Charles Taylor is because we found that guy. And that’s a huge moment in the film.
You rely on five main women—and no narrator—to tell the story. Why did you choose that format?
It was so critical for me to not have an outside narrator. You don’t notice it, but in this film for 72 minutes, you never hear an American or a white person speak, and only hear women speak. It would be so undermining of these women’s authority to have a voice imposed from above on this story. They defined reality on their own and changed the course of things on their own. They can tell it.
How exactly did Leymah and her peers affect the peace talks?
One of the brilliant things these women did was they realized that they needed to be a piece of a larger set of influencers, that there were people inside the organization they needed to get to. They saw they had to fit in the larger picture. Americans have the tendency to think of political solutions as more simple than they ever are. No war is simple. It would be disingenuous to say that on their own these women got Charles Taylor to go to peace talks, but the popular opinion was with them, and their pressuring him was the final straw. With the rebels, they sent Muslim women to Sierra Leone to convince LURD to join the talks as well—they coaxed the men as only women can.
So it was a particularly female form of activism?
When you make an argument about women and their peaceful capacity to bring conflicts to an end, you always get the pushback about women are no less violence than men, women soldiers, etc. But you look at that footage and 95 percent of the time you see who is pulling the trigger—men. It tends to fall to the women to have to do things horizontally instead of vertically, cooperatively instead of confrontationally, pushing for restorative models of justice rather than retributive models.
What is your next project?
Ginny and I were offered the opportunity to develop a project for Wide Angle called Women, War, and Peace. It will be four hours on the role women have always played in conflict, which is greater than we acknowledge. In Congo and Zimbabwe, for example, we look at both those places and think, How horrible. But—and the reporters aren’t covering it—the women are mobilizing there now. They are gathering testimonies, even as Mugabe is still in power there, and they need our support from the International Community. They are starting to fight back from remarkable brutality.
Over and over these women say they start from zero. But where would they be if they started from 5 or 10? How far could they get? They could be really effective peacemakers—Leymah’s work has just begun.
Rachel Syme is Culture Editor of The Daily Beast